Monday, December 7, 2015

Disinterred Eldricity: Council of Wyrms

Player: "Can I play a dragon?"
DM: "You know what? Fine. Here."
Back when I was a wee lad of too-long-ago, there was always someone who asked the above question. When this box came out, I could finally say yes, because then everyone could.

The Council of Wyrms setting is one that lacks in excruciating details about its lore, but provides a wealth of rules material for running the preeminent winged murder lizards that grace the second half of the game's name. It was wildly imbalanced, it didn't care, and it was completely bananas. It was awesome as hell.

So I figured, you know what? I should update another old setting no one will ever get around to playing, that seems like a great use of my time.

And it really was. This was hellacious fun to convert.

I'll be breaking this out into multiple articles for digestibility. But first, a little something about the setting itself. Bare with the abridged nature of my synopsis.

The Council of Wyrms box assumes a campaign world in which dragons are the first, the mightiest, and the most fit to lead. It has no compunctions about reminding the players just how important they are -- they are the ruling species of the world and the typical player races are beneath them in all respects, to the point where they serve the dragon clans.

Dragons have a society that was built under a divine mandate (and on at least one occasion, devious manipulation and the creation of their greatest enemy) to prevent endless dragon war. The three families of dragons, chromatic, gem, and metallic, live in this clannish society in a place called the Io's Blood Isles. It's not all hugs and butterflies though, with clans still feuding here and there while working together -- reluctantly -- against mutual foes such as marauding giants and rampaging monsters.

Worst of all is the specter of the humans from across the sea, who once slaughtered the wyrms in great numbers with their dragonslayers. Hilariously enough, created by the dragons' chief deity in order to give them an opponent to unify against or risk complete destruction. Great Io is a dick.

Anyway, you have a setting where you play dragons, accrue treasure like regular player characters might, and engage in clan politic chicanery between adventure sessions while acting as agents of the titular Council of Wyrms.

Here is a short list of why this setting is a tub full of maple syrup levels of awesome:

  • Friggin' dragons as player characters. Satiate that power fantasy all you want.
  • Clan politics between creatures that can crush a village by rolling over on it.
  • Breathe fire, ice, or lightning on some fools.
  • A world given just a light level of detail to allow you to fill in the specifics of the map with your own stuff.
  • Want to run it as a bunch of kaiju battles? Roll for initiative!
  • Want to run it as a generational game across dozens of mortal lifetimes? Sign me up.
  • Friggin' dragons as player characters.

It definitely takes the right group to stick with it though. Running at such a high level of power with a dramatically slowed progression might chafe some players and DMs, but I feel like it could be so very rewarding beyond just the power fantasy of playing a huge fire-breathing (or cold or lightning or bomb spitting) magical murder lizard.

I joke about it in my bullet point list, but the brawling with huge monsters isn't the only draw. The idea of exploring a society that measures things in the decades and centuries rather than months and years is really appealing. What does a government that doesn't rely on the same things we do look like, and how does it get things done from day to day? If you think our own governments do things slow, imagine waiting for a policy change in your clan overlords to take place over two lifetimes.

Of course, the old setting and rules had its problems. Lots of them, in hindsight. It does some things that are design sins nowadays, like telling you what alignment your character must be, and making you roll for what you play. I mean, that's okay too, if you want to still do that. I'm not your mother. But imagine a player saying to you, "Wow, this is super cool! I want to play that!" and then you gaze down on them with the eyes of a cruel, dispassionate evil overlord and crush their spark of creativity under the boot of your rules compendium.

I don't know where I was going with that. But yes, old rules, old design conceits, new ideas, et cetera. This doc I have is like 25 pages already, so I might as well get started. Hold onto your butts.

Notes Regarding the Adaptation

I’ve taken care to preserve as much of the flavor of the original Council of Wyrms as possible, but many of their rules and design conceits do not have good corollaries to the latest edition. To that end, some sacred cows were slaughtered, and some were mutated into pigs or sheep.

Some things that you’ll find to be different if you’re familiar with the old rules include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • You won't be playing a direct import from the Monster Manual. Player character dragons start out slightly weaker than that, and grow into their power. As with "monster" versions of the standard player races, monsters are monsters and players are players. You won't be immune to energy starting out of the gate, nor have the full gamut of dragon powers as you level.
  • No more strict adherence to age category as your level. Dragons in this adaptation gain levels as would normal player characters, using the classes presented in the Player’s Handbook, though they may find themselves limited in power by their age.
  • Age categories have been slimmed down from the original twelve from AD&D to four from the current edition. The categories have much more dramatic effects on the player character’s power, and overall power steadily increases as the dragon gains class levels.
  • There is a much less drastic striation of power between dragon breeds, which is generally supported by the update to dragons in the current edition -- though a red dragon from the Monster Manual will be stronger than a white of similar age. There should not be a massive inherent disadvantage to playing the breed one wants to play, but slight power differences may be apparent. A Dungeon Master should take care lest they be surrounded by six player character gold dragons.
  • Metallic dragons are slightly stronger as-written due to breath weapon varieties. To that end, chromatic and gem dragons were given some extra tricks that echo some of their old abilities as well as bonus proficiencies to compensate.
  • Not every dragon gets innate spells or psionic powers. A dragon that chooses a class that ignores these skills does not receive them.
  • Dragons are not limited to the alignment of their breed, though dragons that deviate from this norm will be considered odd (should the difference be minor) or revolting (should the difference be great) by their own breed.
  • Current edition rules mean a much broader variety of classes and combinations that were previously not possible or might be considered bizarre. Dragons can be fighters, wizards, clerics, warlocks, paladins, and more.
  • Dragons benefit fully from all ability score bonuses, rather than not benefiting at all. This means a dragon with a high Dexterity score has an excellent AC, represented by preternatural awareness and reflexes. A dragon with immense Strength (which most have, eventually) will deal great amounts of damage with their physical attacks.
  • All dragon family tongues were merged together into Draconic.
  • Finally, this adaptation includes, for better or worse, rules for playing chromatic dragons. Many Dungeon Masters may want to ban their use as player characters, but for those who can play evil responsibly and not tear apart their gaming groups with backstabbing and vindictiveness may find great joy in playing a terrifying chromatic wyrm.

So You Want to Be a Dragon

Playing a dragon is in many ways like playing a typical character of a standard Player’s Handbook race. You decide on your ability scores (whether rolling, point buying, or using the standard array as your Dungeon Master sees fit), apply racial bonus to the scores, choose a class, and begin play.

There are, of course, some notable differences. A dragon player character is much stronger than an equivalent level human, elf, or dwarf, and only gets more powerful from there. However, dragons cannot benefit from many class proficiencies, such as weapons and armor, since none are designed with dragons in mind (with a few exceptions). Further, dragons don’t use most equipment, so one would ignore the starting gear provided by class and background if it cannot benefit the dragon. The player may instead roll for their starting gold, which is a small pittance they’ve collected and carried with them. This sum may be used to contribute to their bonded hoard (which is covered later in this document).

Additionally, some skills and tools are irrelevant for dragons. They either have better means of accomplishing the task with their natural strength and size (or servants), or lack the manual dexterity to use the skill or tools in question at all. Most notably, dragons have special rules for Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) checks and other roguish skills, outlined later in this document.

Dragon Breeds, Families, and Racial Traits

When Great Io created the dragons, he did so by dividing the dragons into three families that, together, created a balance of power and ideologies. The chromatic dragons tended toward cruelty and domination, using their strength to gain status and quell subordinate dragons within their clan. Metallic dragons were on the opposite end of the spectrum from the chromatics, comprised of dragon breeds that were noble and generally just. Between them, the gem dragons were introspective and wise, tending toward neither wickedness or benevolence.

All player character dragons belong to one of these families and their respective breeds. Other dragon breeds, or hybrids of any two dragon breeds, are almost completely unknown in the Council of Wyrms setting.

Regardless of family or breed, all dragons have the following qualities in common:

Speed. Your base movement speed is 30 feet. You also possess a flight speed of 60 feet. At young age and older, your movement speed increases to 40 feet and your flight speed to 80 feet.
Breath Weapon. Your draconic heritage gives you a breath weapon that inflicts damage of an energy type in accordance with your breed, and in volume and range, as listed in its respective entry. This breath weapon becomes stronger as you gain in levels. As an action, you can exhale this breath upon your enemies, forcing them to make a Dexterity saving throw. If they succeed, a victim suffers only half damage from the attack. The saving throw DC is equal to 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Constitution modifier unless otherwise stated. You cannot use this ability again until you complete a short rest. If your breed allows you to use more than one type of breath attack, you can only use one or the other before requiring a short rest.
Fangs. Almost all dragons (unless otherwise noted) possess a natural bite attack that inflicts 1d10 points of piercing damage, plus your Strength modifier. At young age and older, this damage increases to 2d10.
Darkvision. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You cannot discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
Resistance. You possess resistance to an energy type in accordance with your breed, as listed in its respective entry.
Scales. Dragon hide is tough, and your AC can never be worse than 13 plus your Dexterity modifier.
Toughness. You possess additional maximum hit points equal to your class’s starting hit point value. For example, if your dragon is a fighter, you begin play with 10 extra hit points.
Languages. You can speak, read, and write the Draconic language. Dragons rarely employ ink and quills to write in the Draconic language (especially as they grow larger), but carve letters into stone or wood with their claws.

Next time, I'll go into the individual breeds and their racial bonuses and abilities. It's a whole bunch of pages and I may even just take samples of it for presenting.


  1. I think the main question I come away with is one of draconic culture. From the dragon's point of view, a CG gold dragon a bigger deviation than an LE one? If so, why? Obviously, all metallics are Good, but... why?

    (Color-coded alignment is a lot less interesting or useful to me as a gameplay tool than it once was.)

    1. An excellent question, and one that I think is left up to the DM running the situation. I'd argue that a shift to LE is way more likely than one to CG for a gold dragon and (maybe amusingly) the one less likely to cause comment among other gold dragons. "At least he's not as unpredictable as those abominable red dragons..."

      But that's just my interpretation.

    2. Also, I think this snowballs into a bigger discussion about the role of alignment in D&D. It has a lot of past baggage of being used to dictate what your character is and can do and less about a general roleplaying informative tool.

      Contrast the following:

      - "I'm a paladin and must be lawful good. If I'm not lawful good, I am a failure in the eyes of my order and lose my powers until I atone."

      - "I'm lawful good. I generally agree that order and altruism are the path to a world that's safest for everyone. I don't lose anything if I change world views."

      The LE gold dragon wouldn't be abhorrent in a way that other gold dragons naturally detect, but their actions and attitude probably turn people off.

      "I will protect the kindred under my wing, but I will brook no insurrection in my mission and they must understand that some liberties must be sacrificed in order to maintain prosperity."

      I could see a rigid gold dragon saying that in a believable manner, probably more so than one who says "screw your rules!" That probably says some unflattering things about my perception of how easily people can be turned to wickedness, though.

      What I really think you were asking though, after reading it again, is, "Why are gold dragons lawful good?" I don't think that's a hard and fast rule anyway; maybe they aren't in practice. There's a certain amount of It's-The-Way-Io-Made-Them there, but I think it's just a societal guideline for the species.

      Why are all Tolkien orcs Chaotic Evil?

    3. Well, THAT has an answer. =) The Professor's orcs are chaotic evil because they are a corruption of the Eldar (possibly the Avari in particular), infected with Melkor's song of dissonance against Eru Ilúvatar. Melkor wished to mock the creation of the Eldar and the Edain, for reasons described in the Ainulindalë.

      I agree with your analysis of the evil gold dragon, in fact, and I would find that particular dynamic really interesting to explore in the course of a campaign.

    4. It was a rhetorical question! :D

      In that case, it stands to reason that's just the way Io made dragons; golds are lawful good, reds are chaotic evil, etc. I could speculate all day long on how and why the Powers That Be from that era made them those alignments.

      I think we both agree that no strict adherence to the alignment is a better way to run things though.

    5. I agree! But then I would treat orcs in Middle-Earth differently than I would in any other setting. Up to the end of the Third Age, there is no question in my mind that Middle-Earth orcs are not redeemable in any way, have no true civilization, and exist only to despoil and slaughter their way across the lands of Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits. (Kainenchen has an awesome Fourth Age game in mind that revolves around the orcs breaking free of Morgoth's and Sauron's control.)

      In any other setting, orcs are people. People that you might be at war with a lot of the time... but people, and peace is a possibility that is on the table.